I'd decided to go off base for lunch that day. I headed out the Wyoming gate, and straight up to Central, where there's a McDonald's. It's not that the Air Force gives you sorry food in the chow hall. It's exactly the opposite – I've never seen any cafeteria give you such good food as I've eaten in Air Force chow halls. But there are times when, even in uniform, you want to grab a Big Mac and some fries and eat like a civilian.
It was crowded that lunchtime. Central Avenue is Albuquerque's busiest street, or at least one of the busiest, as I'd learned in the three months I'd been at Kirtland Air Force Base. It's the old US 66, and it cuts right through town, from Tijeras Canyon on the east, through downtown, and on out to the West Mesa and then toward Arizona. There's always traffic on Central, even at two in the morning.
And Wyoming is another of Albuquerque's busiest streets. It's one of the major north-south arteries, and so where it meets Central there's traffic by the ton. I wasn't surprised to see a lot of people in McDonald's, though I'd never seen it quite that crowded. I got lucky – I found an empty table, a little one, barely big enough for my tray, though there were two chairs. They'd fastened the chairs to the floor, as though someone might take them away otherwise. And perhaps they would – that's not the best neighborhood in Albuquerque.
I was concentrating on my food when I heard a voice. "Do you mind if I sit down, airman?" I was a senior airman, an E-4 in the pay grade structure, and so "airman" was the correct form of address. I knew even before I looked up that whoever was talking to me was also in the Air Force – and female, for it was a pleasant low voice with just a hint of huskiness in it, and a distinct southern accent.
And when I looked up, I tried to jump out of my chair. "Of course, lieutenant! I mean, please sit down."
"As you were, airman." She smiled at me as she set her tray on the table. "We're off base and it's cramped in here, and you don't need to pretend we're on the terrazzo." At first I didn't know what she meant, and then I saw the ring on the third finger of her right hand – a United States Air Force Academy ring. She'd graduated from the Academy, then, and had marched on what they call the terrazzo there, an open plaza surrounding by buildings, including the famous Academy chapel. I'd visited there during my leave en route from George AFB in California.
"I'm sorry, lieutenant," I said as I gathered up my food, which I'd nearly scattered on the floor. "I just didn't expect an officer." She was indeed an officer, with the silver bars of a first lieutenant on her collar. She was wearing a flight suit, wrinkled and baggy as they all are, and I could see her flight cap protruding from a sleeve pocket where she'd stuck it when she came in – under Air Force regulations, you don't wear your hat indoors unless you're under arms. She had blonde hair, escaping from the bun she'd put it in to comply with uniform regulations, and a scattering of freckles across her nose and cheekbones. She was the most beautiful woman I'd ever seen – hazel eyes, and a warm smile, and a friendly manner.
"In here," she said, looking around, "you take what you can get, and so I'm sitting with an enlisted man. Not that I mind," she said smiling. "I hear enlisted troops are people too."
I laughed. "We are, though I've heard rumors that they hatch officers out of eggs." I hadn't heard any such rumor, but it seemed like a good joke, and she smiled at it. "I'm Senior Airman Derek Alba." She could, of course, have read the name tape on my BDUs, but an introduction was merely polite.
"And I'm First Lieutenant Max Bois d'Arc." I'd seen the name on her flight suit, but I was glad she'd said it, for it sounded like BOW dark.
"Nice to meet you, lieutenant," I said, and stuck my hand across the table.
"Likewise." In any other setting she'd probably have asked me to call her Max, but officers do not ask enlisted people to use their first names. I thought of asking her to call me Derek, which she could have done with perfect propriety, but we had just met and I thought better of it. "You like this swill?" she said, gesturing at my food and interrupting my thoughts.
"I call them mystery burgers," I said. "You don't know what kind of meat is in there. But they're good."
"They are indeed," she said, taking a bite. "I remember the meat I ate in Saudi – some of it was not, I'm sure, actually beef."
"Have you been overseas much?" I asked, the mention of Saudi Arabia piquing my interest.
"I did a tour at Kunsan, in the ROK." She pronounced the acronym as though it were the word rock – in the military, we say most acronyms rather than spelling them out. "And I've been TDY to a couple of places in Germany, and to Saudi twice."
"Sounds interesting. I've never been outside the CONUS." I meant the Continental United States.
"Give it time," Lieutenant Bois d'Arc said.
"And that I've got plenty of. I won't think about retirement till I make chief." Chief master sergeant is E-9, the highest enlisted rank in the Air Force. "But I have to ask you something. Where did you get that last name?"
She grinned at me. "From my dad, of course. It's French of some sort, though the French got into our family so far back that none of us knows where or how or when. I'm from Oklahoma – Midwest City, in fact, where Tinker is, and once I passed through Duncan, and there's a street there with the same name." I knew about Tinker AFB, though only from hearsay.
"It's definitely different. I'd have thought it would be boys de ark, but that would obviously be wrong." It occurred to me that if someone had, that morning, told me that for lunch I'd be having such a natural conversation with an officer and a pilot I'd have laughed at him. Enlisted personnel and officers don't eat lunch together, and when they speak it's on a professional basis.
"Yes, that would have been wrong. I have to correct people all the time. French doesn't sound like it looks, you know, and this has gotten mangled in many years of American mouths."
"I was going to say southern mouths," I said with a smile.
"You think my accent's funny?" She smiled back at me. "You ought to hear how you sound."
"How do I sound?" I demanded.
"Like John F. Kennedy."
"Yeah, so? He didn't have an accent any more than I do. His kids, now, they have accents, like they're from California or something."
"Yes, but you and he both could pahk your cahs in Hahvahd Yahd."
I shook my head. "That is a pretty poor attempt at saying things right, lieutenant."
"I bet you couldn't say anything right – not like we do in Oklahoma."
I gave a big fake shudder. "Nor would I want to. I've never had a mint julep and I don't want to have one now."
Lieutenant Bois d'Arc laughed. "You're thinking of Mississippi, or Georgia, or some such place. In Oklahoma we drink beer, and chew tobacco, and smell like the oil patch."
"You know, if you weren't an officer," I said, and then listened to myself and cut the sentence off short.
"If I weren't an officer, what?"
I looked into her hazel eyes, and thought about brushing it off, and then decided that I'd be fully honest, and if she got mad, well, I'd probably never see her again. We had the same unit patch on, but I fixed jet engines while she flew the jets – I'd also spotted her pilot's wings – and mechanics and pilots don't mix on duty or off. "If you weren't an officer, lieutenant, I'd invite you out for a beer."
She folded her hands and put her elbows on the table, resting her chin on her hands. "You know, if you weren't enlisted, I'd accept that invitation."
"You would?" I heard myself, and I sounded as shocked as I felt.
"Yes, I would. You're a nice person, Airman Alba, and I like you. It's been a while since I went out for a beer with someone I liked as well as I like you."
the only thing I could think of to say was the honest thing. "It's been a while since I liked someone well enough to invite her out for a beer."
She unfolded her hands and picked up her burger. "It's a shame we can't do that. I think I'd really enjoy it."
Back at work, my arms up to the elbow in the intricate innards of an engine getting a 100-hour check before it went back into an F-15, I found myself thinking about a blonde woman in a rumpled flight suit. The sensation wasn't a new one. I'd met women before, women who hung around in my head for a while. Even now I could recall most of them if I tried.
There was Heidi Seward, a civilian I'd met at George. We'd dated for two or three months, until the day I ran into her with someone else. I'd turned and walked away, ignoring her cries behind my back. I'm not perfect, but I don't juggle a bunch of balls and don't appreciate it when someone juggles me and someone else.
There was Susan Wright, also at George. She'd run into me in the commissary with a shopping cart, and we'd liked each other, but she was too hung up on being a colonel's daughter and we'd drifted apart.
Right after I'd come to Kirtland I'd met Juanita Chacon, whose family had lived here for 300 years. She was pretty, and fun, and tried too hard to get me into bed, and I'd run her off.
There were others, and I could remember them. So it didn't surprise me that Lieutenant Bois d'Arc's face stayed in my mind. She was a beautiful woman, not in the manner of women who are "perfect" by society's standard, but in the way of a woman who looks exactly like herself. I hadn't been able to really tell what she looked like inside her flight suit, but I was sure that all the parts were there and in working order, and that was all I cared about. Come to think of it, that was a minor detail. Even her face, which I'd studied and approved of, with its square jaw and lips that smiled naturally, and those freckles, wasn't really the issue. It can be hard to tell on short acquaintance, but I thought that the lieutenant was a nice person inside.
So many fighter pilots, men and women both, are so arrogant they make the French Bourbon kings look humble. I remembered a time when a fighter jock had shouted at me across the street one morning, after I'd spent a long night shift trying to get engines back in working order, because I flatly hadn't seen him and therefore hadn't saluted him. He was a butterbar – a second lieutenant, the lowest rank on the officer totem pole – but he thought he deserved as much respect and courtesy as Tooey Spaatz, the only five-star general the Air Force has ever had.
Lieutenant Bois d'Arc wasn't like that. She'd been pleasant and polite, she'd treated me like a real human being, she'd acted as though her silver bars and my three stripes were merely accidents of appearance instead of impenetrable barriers to having fun over lunch. Remembering her as I got grease on my hands was therefore probably inevitable, and it was certainly pleasant, and the time didn't go more slowly while I remembered – in fact, it went quickly.
My crew chief, a master sergeant who was nearing retirement, came by, and I told him what I was doing and how things were. He nodded, and went on, checking on other troops who were doing their thing – checking out the bird's avionics, making sure the tires were in good shape, ensuring that the hard points under the wings were ready to take weapons or fuel tanks. A crew chief "owns" the aircraft, not the pilot. It's the crew chief's name they paint on the side, below the canopy, and a different pilot might sign for the aircraft every time it launches. Sergeant Green took that seriously – he treated the aircraft like his own personal property, and made sure we did too. I think that when he's old and gray and has lost every other part of his memory, he'll be able to rattle off the tail number of every aircraft he's ever "owned."
Finally the end of the day came, and I put away my tools and my manuals, and put my shirt back on – jet engine mechanics usually work in just their t-shirts – and washed my hands. I put my hat back on, pulling it from the pocket where I'd stuffed it, and walked out of the hanger. It was November, and between the shortening days and the time change the sun was low in the west. I looked around, seeing the acres of concrete flightline, and the F-15 Eagles parked there, and the sky overhead. It was a nice day. It had been chilly in the morning, after a blowing cold night, but with the sun out it wasn't bad. I made my way to the parking area, and got on my motorcycle, and headed for home.
I didn't see Lieutenant Bois d'Arc for over a week, and at that I hadn't expected to see her at all. She had her work and her life, and I had mine. For three months we hadn't even known about each other, and to expect that we'd run into each other again, much less so soon, would have been foolish.
So there I was, on a Saturday evening, ready for a little time out of the apartment. I lived on Ortiz Drive, just south of Zuni, not far from the Wal-Mart on San Mateo. I knew of a quiet place to have a drink and a sandwich on San Mateo just north of Lomas, and I'd ridden my bike there and ordered just that – a drink and a sandwich. Specifically it was a glass of draft beer, and a Rueben on Kaiser. Their Ruebens were huge, the bread nearly as big around as the plate, topped with poppy seeds. The Rueben was one of the best I've ever had, the sauerkraut not too sour, the dressing not so much that it disguised the taste of the meat.
I was about halfway through my sandwich when, glancing up, I saw a spill of blonde hair at the bar. My table was in a back corner, where it was fairly dark, not that any bar is well-lit. I didn't go into most bars at all, and I didn't go into the ones I would visit on anything like a regular basis, but I'd pulled my dad out of enough bars that I know they're dark places, so you can't see how seedy they really are. A nice, clean, well-kept bar – like the one I was in at the moment – is a great rarity. And one with bright lights just doesn't exist.
So I couldn't be sure who the hair belonged to. I knew where I'd seen glowing blonde hair lately, but this woman was in civilian clothes, and her hair was down, and it wasn't likely that Lieutenant Bois d'Arc would be in the same place I was in. Still, I kept my eyes open. This woman was tall, probably as tall as I am. She was wearing a plaid shirt with the sleeves rolled up on her forearms, a shirt she'd tucked into jeans that fit her well. She had the build of the typical American female – long legs and a broad beam – but the legs appeared slender enough, and the arms, what little I could see of them, confirmed the impression. But she was talking to the bartender, and would not look in a direction which allowed me to see her face.
I was nearly done with my sandwich, and about half done with my beer, when the bartender took a plate from the pass through to the kitchen and set it on the bar in front of the woman. It seemed she was hungry too, and had ordered something to eat. She turned, plate in hand, looking for a more comfortable place to eat than standing at the bar. It was her. I thought of the policy against fraternization, and shoved the policy aside – surely it couldn't prohibit me from inviting Lieutenant Bois d'Arc to sit at my table, since I knew her and there wasn't an empty table in the place.
I stood and waved, and called out, "Over here, lieutenant!" She must have spotted me, because she smiled a neutral little smile and walked toward the table. I doubt she recognized me till she got there, for it wasn't until then that her smile became more than merely polite.
"Well, hello, Airman Alba!" she said as she put her plate on the table and extended her hand. To be polite I had to shake, though grasping the hand of an officer felt odd to me. It had felt a bit odd two weeks before in McDonald's but it was more so now, in civilian clothes and on a purely social occasion.
"How are you doing, lieutenant?" I asked.
"Fine." She sat down, and picked up her sandwich. "Do we always pick the same places to eat?"
"It looks like it," I said, and took a drink of beer. It was Tecate, a Mexican brand I like, though the truth is I'd never been much of a drinker and might have one glass of beer a month. My dad had never quite been an alcoholic, but he'd gotten just buzzed enough just often enough that I'd never wanted to do more than have the occasional adult beverage.
The lieutenant took a bite of her sandwich and regarded me. Her hair was in a ponytail, tied at her collar with a bit of white ribbon, as I'd seen when she was at the bar. Now she reached up and pulled it around so it rested over her right shoulder. "I'm tempted to ask if you planned this," she said.
"I'm tempted to ask if you planned it," I told her with a grin. "But I had no idea I was going to be here till I decided on the spur of the moment, and I know for a fact that I had no way of knowing you'd come in."
"Exactly. I made an impulse decision too. I've been flying half the day and I got in the mood for a quick drink and something to eat."
"So where's the drink?" She hadn't brought a glass or a bottle to the table.
"Oh, I finished that before I ordered my food." She held up her sandwich, which looked like roast beef on rye.
She grinned at me. "Are you asking me out for a beer?"
I was glad it was dark in that corner, for I felt myself going red. "I hadn't thought of it that way, Lieutenant Bois d'Arc."
"I wish you had, Airman Alba, because I would accept that invitation."
I put down the last remnant of my sandwich. I thought, and changed my mind, and then swallowed and said it after all. "Lieutenant, I am asking you out for a beer."
"In that case, airman, I accept."
I must have been redder than before, the way I felt. I looked up and a waitress was close by, so I called to her and ordered another Tecate for me, and whatever the lieutenant wanted, which turned out to be a German brand.
We didn't say anything till the new drinks came. I finished off my sandwich, and she chomped her way into hers, and when I saw the waitress coming I drank the last swallow of my beer. It had been a very long time since I'd had two beers in a day, and I knew I was going to have to take my time, let the alcohol metabolize, maybe eat something else, so that I could safely ride home.
The waitress set the beers down on the table, and I ordered a plate of French fries – a double, I added, seeing how fast the lieutenant's sandwich was disappearing. When the waitress was gone, I picked up my glass, looked across the table, and said, "Is that German stuff any good."
"I learned to like it TDY in Germany. My daddy's a Bud man, though." She held her glass out. "My name's Max."
"I want you to call me that – at least here, tonight."
"But you're an officer," I said, "and I'm just a senior airman."
"I know. And tomorrow, or whenever, if we see each other, we'll use our ranks. But I'm out for a beer with someone I like, and as long as that lasts, I really wish you'd call me by my name, not my rank."
I took a deep breath. "Okay – Max. My name's Derek." And I clinked my glass against hers, and we drank.